Erasing ugly history isn’t a cure
The lowering of Confederate battle flags across the South is not a victory. It’s a correction, a small one, and to treat it like a victory is wrong and divisive given the example in Charleston, S.C., where the forgiving grace of nine families in funeral corteges is a continuing miracle that makes the head bow with humility.
What good is it to lower flags if it leads to chins raised in defensiveness, defaced statues and suppression of speech? To desentimentalize the Confederate banner and to insist on its removal from statehouse grounds should not mean the wholesale effacement of history. The least attractive feature of the Confederacy, beyond its inherent brutality, was its intolerance of dissent and determination to hijack the story of the war.
For too long, popular conceptions of the Civil War overwhelmed the truth that it was a war for white supremacy. But overcompensation is not helpful either, and commentators are right to complain of excess when monuments to the long dead are spray-painted and Washington National Cathedral considers breaking its own windows simply because they contain flag imagery that was meant to be conciliatory. The cure, if there is one, is to look with clearer eyes at Civil War history, not to wipe history out. How to find the right line between whitewash and backlash, so the flags are properly furled?
In 1868, Union general George H. Thomas described better than any modern commentator why the retelling of the Civil War became so contested and how a symbol of racist tyranny like the Confederate battle flag could be romanticized and tolerated at statehouses in the first place:
“The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty ... suffered violence and wrong when the effort for Southern independence failed,” he wrote. “This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand-in-hand with the defenders of the Government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains.”
It was a form of self-forgiveness, Thomas said. And Northerners colluded, partly from lack of will, and partly because the nation was weary of strife and carnage. As historian and Time magazine writer David Von Drehle described it, “For most of the first century after the war, historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants.” Pro-South historians such as J.G. Randall contended the war was avoidable and placed blame for it squarely on abolitionists with their lunatic “reforming zeal” and lack of “toleration” and “human values.”
Abolitionists were the intolerant ones lacking in human values? This was taught and is still insinuated today. Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner was beaten within an inch of his life on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks over an anti-slavery speech. Yet Sumner is routinely treated as the uncompromising, charmless pedagogue, while Brooks is an interesting young hothead. Jefferson Davis ran what was essentially a totalitarian state: He imposed martial law on Richmond in 1862, and citizens who harbored Union sentiments or who refused to volunteer for regiments were clapped in irons and had their homes burned. Yet it is Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus we dwell on.
The tension between who and what to commemorate or condemn is constant. There are no fewer than five heroic biographies of J.E.B. Stuart and innumerable cinematic depictions. But why should we know so much more about Stuart than we do about Union cavalryman Charles Russell Lowell III? The scion of a great Boston family, he enlisted with U.S. cavalry regulars, and when asked why he didn’t join a company of gentlemen elites, he responded that he didn’t want to serve with dandies and “drivers of gigs.” When he was shot in the chest at Cedar Creek, he refused to move to the rear, instead insisting his men help him remount for a counterattack. He was shot down again, fatally.
Lowell’s death equally devastated Boston society, which had just lost his brother-in-law-Robert Gould Shaw, and the hard-bitten Army. George Custer wept and Phillip Sheridan said, “I do not think there was a quality which I could have added to Lowell.” Yet there was just one short book written about him, in 1907, until Carol Bundy rescued him in 2005 with a biography titled “The Nature of Sacrifice.”
On the day of Lowell’s funeral, his first biographer, Edward Waldo Emerson, discerned a striking image. The coffin sat on an altar draped in the American flag, with his campaign gear laid atop it. “How strangely in contrast with the . . . fresh white and red bunting were the campaign-soiled cap and gauntlets, the worn hilt and battered scabbard of the sword that lay on the coffin,” Emerson wrote.
We’re still grappling with this strange contrast between cleaner remembrance and hard reality. This color-correction is a painful and sometimes confusing exercise. Last week I compared the Confederate battle flag to a swastika. This was not meant to call Southerners Nazis or advance a hateful sentiment but simply to be truthful about the fact that the Confederacy was a regime dedicated to racial purity.
What to take down, and what to leave up? Flags in public spaces that seem to give racism ongoing state sanction? Lower them, yes. But windows in churches that commemorate the terrible national mural that was the war, statues in parks where battles were fought, artwork or busts in the Capitol, which is itself a museum of history? Leave them there for everyone to contemplate and learn about.
A flood of intelligent commentary has sorted through these questions. Charles Krauthammer rightly worried about a “stampede to eliminate every relic of the Confederacy” and noted that Arlington National Cemetery contains a monument to Southern soldiers who did their “duty as they understood it.” But perhaps no one has made a more useful observation than Courtland Milloy, who is less interested in seeing the rebel battle flag lowered in “a flurry of political expediency” than in helping to “raise the American flag a little higher.” Here is the ground for a gentler and more mutual understanding of history, on this weekend of funerals for the Charleston martyrs, as the fresh colors are so painfully in contrast with the hard reality of the soiled campaign.
A stained-glass window atWashington National Cathedral includes the Confederate battle flag.